The leaders of a farmers’ collective in India on Wednesday denounced the violent scenes that rocked the capital during a “tractor rally” on the country’s annual Republic Day but refused to end their months-long protest.
The Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the umbrella group spearheading the protests against controversial government reforms of the agriculture sector, blamed the violence on “anti-social elements” who infiltrated an otherwise peaceful march and that they “will have to pay for their deeds”.
The Indian Express newspaper reported that two farmers’ unions – Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan and Bharatiya Kisan Union (Bhanu) – have decided to withdraw their backing for the national protests after the violence.
Protesting farmers have been camped outside Delhi for many weeks, but the situation dramatically escalated tensions on Tuesday as thousands of demonstrators ignored police instructions to enter the city centre, clashing with security forces and unfurling a religious flag inside the historic Red Fort monument.
One protester died and 230 police personnel were injured in the violence.
The Samyukt Kisan Morcha had planned another march to the country’s parliament building in Delhi on 1 February, when the annual budget is scheduled to be presented. It is now uncertain if they will carry on with the march after Tuesday’s violence.
On Tuesday morning, protesters crossed over from neighbouring states into Delhi to carry out an unofficial “tractor parade” through a route pre-agreed with the police. The situation turned violent as a section of protesters deviated from the route and broke through barricades, as police lobbed tear gas shells and hit them with batons.
Thousands were able to breach even the heightened security arrangements in place for the annual Republic Day military parade through the city centre, and protesters were able to enter and occupy the historic Red Fort for several hours.
The mob hoisted a saffron religious flag considered sacred in Sikhism, known as the “Nishan Sahib”, alongside the Indian national flag at the fort, triggering an outcry on social media.
Samyukta Kisan Morcha released a statement on Wednesday that said the clashes won’t be allowed to hurt their movement and they would continue to protest.
“Despite all our efforts, some organisations and individuals have violated the route and indulged in condemnable acts. Anti-social elements had infiltrated the otherwise peaceful movement. We have always held that peace is our biggest strength, and that any violation would hurt the movement,” the union said.
It also alleged that a “dirty conspiracy was hatched” to derail their peaceful struggle against the farm laws.
The chaos unfolded in Delhi on a day of national significance. Republic Day marks the anniversary of India adopting its own constitution in 1950 after gaining independence from British rule in 1947.
Leaders of the farmers’ agitation have blamed Punjabi actor and activist Deep Sidhu for instigating the clashes and planting the Sikh religious flag at the Red Fort. He has been labelled as an outsider after his pictures with the prime minister, Narendra Modi, went viral on social media shortly after he was seen leading the mob and unfurling the flag.
“Deep Sidhu is not a Sikh, he is a worker of the BJP. There is a picture of him with Prime Minister Modi. This is a movement of farmers and will remain so. Some people will have to leave this place immediately – those who broke barricading will never be a part of the movement,” said Rakesh Tikait, spokesperson for the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU).
“He wronged the protesters for hoisting the religious flag,” Mr Tikait said, adding that “this is not a movement of Sikhs, but farmers”.
“Those who created violence and unfurled flags at the Red Fort will have to pay for their deeds. For last two months, a conspiracy is going on against a particular community,” he added.
Sidhu has denied the allegations, releasing a video on social media saying he is a member of the protesting farmers’ movement. He clarified his role in hoisting the flag, saying he was “exercising our democratic right to protest”, adding that “the Indian flag was not removed”.
His comments came as a section of social media users rued that a religious flag was unfurled from a historic monument on a day that celebrated India’s secular democracy. Many social media users also alleged that the Indian national flag was replaced by the Sikh religious flag, which was later not found to be true, according to media and eye-witness reports.
Sidhu also added that the hoisting of the Sikh flag was not a pre-planned move, as claimed by some opponents.
Delhi police on Wednesday detained around 200 protesters on charges of rioting, damaging public property and attacking its personnel. It has also filed 22 complaints so far against the protesters, including activist Yogendra Yadav and Mr Tikait.
The Delhi police commissioner held a meeting with senior officers to review the security situation and plan the course of action against those who took part in violent acts.
According to police, in addition to the injuries, over 300 barricades were wrecked and 17 government vehicles, including a passenger bus, were damaged.
Internet services were suspended and security was tightened in some parts of the capital after the riots, and an additional 1,500 security personnel were deployed amid alarm that protesters had outnumbered the police in several areas.
There were unprecedented scenes on the streets of Delhi, as bearded and turbaned farmers were seen chasing police personnel on horseback and with tractors, crashing through barricades.
At the same time, a group of farmers were seen rescuing a policeman from a mob and making way for an ambulance, while clips from inside the Red Fort showed groups of older farmers working with the police, pleading with younger protesters to climb down from the ramparts.
A day after the violence, tens of thousands of famers continued to camp out at the Delhi borders, where they have been staging their sit-in protest, demanding the reversal of three government laws that will open up the agricultural sector to market forces. The farmers are demanding the repeal of all three laws, which they say will pave the way for their exploitation by multinational corporations and remove the security they have in the form of a guaranteed minimum price the government pays for their produce.
No amicable solution has been reached to settle the dispute despite 10 rounds of discussions between the farmers and government officials, and an offer from the government to suspend the reforms for 18 months has been rejected.